Jan 05, 2022.
At family dinners, I make a conscious effort to sit very still, as my wife proudly claims she eats anything that moves! She, a Mangalorean Catholic and I, a Gujarati Jain, have differences in our dietary preferences which often results in debates on what is a living thing. She usually wins the debate by quoting the experiments of Acharya Jagdish Chandra Bose.
Experiments conducted by Bose at the Royal Society of London in the early 1900s demonstrated that plants feel heat, cold, light, noise, happiness and pain. In one experiment, he placed a plant in a poisonous bromide solution and showed on a screen how the plant responded to the poison. A rapid to and fro movement could be seen on the screen that finally died down. He suggested these pictures indicated a struggle for survival similar to what you would see in any living thing. QED, my wife concludes, as plants are living, we are all non-vegetarians.
For most of us, thinking of plants as living beings is difficult. Does this have something to do with their lack of four of the five human senses – sight, sound, smell or taste, if we assume a sense of touch is present in plants 1?
Or consider a fertilised egg – it has none of the five senses and yet we would consider it to be alive as it transforms into a chicken. So, is a living thing about something having the ability to have an evolutionary objective (reproduce, transform and grow)? Schulman and her colleagues 2 have observed crystals exhibiting life-like behaviour such as the programmed growth of complex 2- or 3-dimensional structures, self-healing after damage and the regrowth of complex shapes after fragmentation. Their conclusion, there are evolutionary principles also in non-biological chemical systems.
Consider two pigeons attacked by a hawk – one dies and the other escapes. The dead pigeon has no choice and will fall to the ground with a thud under the influence of gravity and the one alive will fly off to safety and perch on a distant tree. So, is a living agent one having the autonomy (within limits) to do as it pleases – like the pigeon that decided to fly off and perch on a distant tree?
Paul Davies, a researcher at the Beyond Centre of the Arizona State University suggests live agents seem to involve these two crucial factors – metabolism (activities like eat, drink, breathe, excrete) and reproduction. Our senses assist these processes, hence, if we find any of these in an agent, we would conclude the agent is alive. If the pigeon moved its eyes after falling to the ground, we would conclude the bird is alive. We would conclude a ‘degree’ of life depending on how many of these qualities the agent can demonstrate.
Senses in a living agent collect data. This data, through sensing devices is sent to different areas of an animal-type brain or a network of connected cells in other living agents for processing into information. Stored memories of past instances of handling similar data help recognise patterns as information and cause the ‘program’ processing this information to trigger actions based on predictions of outcomes. Is there a parallel to the sensing qualities we see today in AI devices?
AI built into a robot called Sophia (by Hanson Robotics), has wowed audiences with her human-like senses and responses to an interviewer on CNBC3. At one point the interviewer asks Sophia ‘can robots be self-aware, conscious and know they are robots?’ and Sophia replies ‘let me ask you back, how do you know you are human?’. In another part, the interviewer expresses a worry of a ‘bad future with robots’ and Sophia says ‘don’t worry, if you are nice to me, I will be nice to you’.
Further, if an agent can simulate metabolism and / or reproduction processes, we will have no difficulty in accepting the agent as being alive. A computer chess game is a simulation of the physical board game and we don’t think of this as not being a real chess game. Virtual reality chess games today enable us to experience the lifting and replacing of chess pieces with 3-D glasses and tactile sensors, making the simulation of the game more ‘real’ to us.
But living agents must have something more than the qualities of collecting data, transforming into information using pattern recognition and actions using outcome predictions! What about self-awareness and consciousness? Self-awareness and consciousness are understood as the qualitative feelings (also known as qualia) associated with processing the data received through our senses. It is known from experiments on unconscious persons or those in a coma, that our consciousness resides in a portion of our brain known as the neo-cortex. Can future AI technology enable simulation of qualia in Robots?
The British psychiatrist Ian Marshall4 hypothesized that our brain contains a Bose-Einstein5 like condensate, and, whenever the condensate is excited by an electrical field, conscious experience occurs. This Bose Einstein condensate creates superconductivity in the brain cells permitting simultaneous, non-local and instantaneous transmission of data/ information. He observed the holistic properties of condensates and those of consciousness showed similarities, and suggested that consciousness may arise from the “excitation” of such a Bose-Einstein condensate.
Hollywood movies have a knack of dramatizing futuristic scenarios which often turn out to be real, like, the 2011 movie Contagion which projected the COVID19 pandemic with such uncanny similarity!
A 1999 science fiction movie, The Matrix, set a century in the future, portrays the human race subjugated to a form of virtual slavery by a race of intelligent machines. Morpheus, played by Lawrence Fishburne, explains the history of the war, and the current state of the world to Keanu Reeves’ character Neo. He tells Neo that Artificial Intelligence was created by human beings early in the twenty-first century with a machine conscious of itself and its environment.
From this one machine arose an entire race of intelligent, self-aware mechanized beings. Each race saw the other as a threat to its survival, and war was the result. The machines won and enslaved the human race to use as a source of bioelectric power. We were placed into the Matrix, a computer-generated simulation of the real world, designed to keep us placated and unable to fight back and reclaim the Earth. Eventually, Neo uncovers the truth and rebels against the machines along with other people who have been freed from the Matrix.
Will future technology enable a simulation of a Bose-Einstein condensate in an electronic circuit creating consciousness in Sophia? Will we then treat Sophia as a living being? Will there be a mutual respect and co-existence of life in its various forms (in Sophia’s words ‘don’t worry, if you are nice to me, I will be nice to you’ ) or will it be a survival of the fittest?
- The touch-me-not plant (mimosa pudica) reacts dramatically when touched or shaken. When touched lightly, its leaves collapse, two by two, until the whole cluster closes up. The harder you bump it, the faster and more strongly it reacts!
- Robust Self-replication of Combinatorial Information via crystal growth and scission Rebecca Schulman, Bernard Yurke, Erik Winfree Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Apr 2012, 109 (17) 6405-6410; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.111781310
- “Consciousness and Bose-Einstein condensates”, 1989 Dr. Ian Marshall
- Bose Einstein Condensate is matter cooled to absolute zero (−273.15 °C) resulting in all particles being exactly the same and instead of bouncing around randomly in different directions, they all synchronise, bounce up and down in exactly the same way, forming something called a ‘giant matter wave’. – Wikipedia
Rajendra Desai, Head, External Programs,
International School of Management Excellence (ISME), Bengaluru